April 17, 2013

The Game Changers

What glass ceiling? Columbia Business School alumnae are striving for — and reaching — the top of the finance world.
Amanda Chalifoux
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Women make up 47 percent of the US labor force and more than half the US finance work force. Despite these numbers, according to the research firm Catalyst, fewer than 20 percent of finance industry executives and directors are women. Among all ranks within the industry, the recession intensified this trend; from 2007 to 2010, 12.5 percent of women in the financial industry lost their jobs, compared with 8.8 percent of men, according to an analysis of government statistics by the Economic Policy Institute.

Nonetheless, a number of Columbia Business School alumnae are leading the upper echelons of the finance industry; they are at the helm of divisions at powerhouses like Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and Wells Fargo, or running their own boutique investment firms around the world. Here, these alumnae share their stories and offer candid advice on reaching the top and how the industry can help women succeed.

Lulu Wang ’83, founder and CEO of Tupelo Capital Management, a member of the Jerome A. Chazen Institute's International Advisory Board, and a member of the School’s Board of Overseers, has been the first woman in the room many times throughout her decades-long finance career. But in one particular instance—as the first woman to serve on a high-level investment committee—she met with a not wholly unexpected challenge.

“The chair of the committee was an old-school gentleman, and I could tell he was uncomfortable when I came on board; he didn’t know what to do with a woman on his committee,” Wang recalls.

When committee members were polled around the table, Wang was not always asked for her opinion. That’s when she decided to make sure she was heard.

“I made a point to always have something to offer at every committee meeting,” she says. “Over time, the chair came to rely on my input and to actually consider me one of his most valued advisors on the committee.”

It’s that type of determination, confidence, and expertise that has propelled nearly 400 Columbia Business School alumnae to C-suite positions in banking and investing around the world, despite male domination of the industry. Only the healthcare industry has fewer women directors than finance, according to a 2010 WECNY study of the top 100 revenue-producing companies in New York as identified by Crain’s.

But the statistics didn’t deter Wang, who decided even before pursuing an MBA that her goal was to head her own investment firm. Armed with an undergraduate degree from Wellesley and experience as a senior analyst at Equitable Capital Management, she enrolled at Columbia to round out her academic credentials. After graduating, offers from Wall Street came pouring in.

“Columbia was an important part of my professional development, giving me not only excellent credentials, along with my Wellesley degree, but also rounding out the decade of experience I already had on Wall Street,” Wang says.

Wang advanced through portfolio management, then general management at Equitable. In the late ’80s, she accepted a position at Jennison Associates Capital Corporation, where she was the first woman portfolio manager, and was responsible for more than $4 billion in assets for pension, endowment, and mutual funds as a director and executive vice president. In 1998, Wang started her own firm, Tupelo Capital Management.

“If you become an important, contributing member of the team, it doesn’t matter if you’re male, female, or whatever race,” Wang says. “If you help the team, they’ll want you. Just remember not to take anything personally.”


Striking a Tough Balance

Maria Chrin ’89 also knew early on that finance was for her. Her passion stemmed from watching her grandmother in Honduras lose out on a significant amount because she did not know who could help her with the stock portfolio left to her when Chrin’s grandfather died unexpectedly. “I never wanted that to happen to me,” Chrin says. “I wanted to not only understand the world of finance and investments but also help others navigate it—to give back in a way I wish someone would have given back to my grandmother.”

But Chrin encountered challenges before she even graduated with her MBA. Married before business school, she became pregnant her first semester at Columbia. Many people advised her to give up a Wall Street career. “They said it was going to be too difficult, that no one would hire me without the right summer internship,” Chrin says.

Unlike Chrin, working in finance was not an initial goal for Candace Browning ’79. She found her path—and experienced the challenges working mothers face in a demanding field—along the way. “I was a marketing major at Columbia and had zero interest in finance,” Browning says. “It was a very male-dominated and extremely intimidating area.”

Instead, Browning worked as an airline analyst for 20 years before taking a risk on a management job in London in 2000 with Merrill Lynch. Today, she is head of BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research and a member of the Executive Board of the School’s Program for Financial Studies. But despite the obstacles inherent in her move to investment management, Browning says the biggest challenge she faced was in building a family while climbing the corporate ranks.

“I think for a woman with a young family, it is very difficult,” Browning says. “Those challenges were there when I was coming up and are still here today. There is more recognition and sensitivity to these issues now, but, frankly, there hasn’t been much change to help women balance work and family.”

Nicole Pullen Ross ’99, managing director and head of the Mid-Atlantic region in the investment management division at Goldman Sachs, says the difficulty of juggling the role of mother and professional shocked her after the birth of her first child.

“After my first week back from maternity leave, I thought, ’no one ever told me that all these working moms had their Superwomen capes tucked away in their closets,’” she says. “The magnitude of things that working women accomplish—I’m constantly in awe. We are professionals, mothers, wives or partners, and it’s an ever-changing priority list.”

Citing a recent study of University of Chicago MBAs, Ann Bartel, the Merrill Lynch Professor of Workforce Transformation at the School, reports that, although male and female MBAs have nearly identical earnings at the outset of their careers, nine years after graduation, female MBAs earn approximately 40 percent less than their male counterparts on average. “Differences in career interruptions and weekly hours, both of which were largely associated with motherhood, accounted for this large gap,” Bartel says.

Wang points out that as more companies become multinational, family responsibilities can often affect a woman’s mobility and, therefore, her opportunity to advance. “I’m concerned when I see three or four top management candidates for a job, and the women tend to have lower rankings on mobility than men do,” Wang says. “I think women feel that they are the stewards of their families, and they worry about their kids being in school, aging parents, etc. I know many women have been able to make an international move, but it comes with a great deal more personal sacrifice than it does for their male counterparts.”

Commitment is what leads many women in finance to find their own solutions. “Building a family affects women differently than men, but it’s not insurmountable,” says Browning, who worked on a flexible schedule—sometimes at her kitchen table—during her years as an analyst with a young family. “You just have to recognize it’s an issue and devise strategies to solve it. In finance, you measure your performance in metrics, and you can see the value of someone’s contribution in numbers. There are aspects of finance that are flexible, and women excel in those areas.”

Instead of listening to the naysayers, Chrin was hired at Goldman Sachs after graduation, where she worked for 15 years before co-founding Circle Financial Group and later founding Circle Wealth Management, LLC with Ann Kaplan ’77, a member of the School’s Board of Overseers. While she says good support at home was key, she also focused on balance over the long term—if workdays were long, she compensated by focusing on family on the weekends.

“It wasn’t easy. I started with a full plate,” Chrin says. “But I knew both my family and my career were very important to me, and I was determined to make it all work. Firms need to be more responsive when a good producer asks for flexibility during a period of their lives when they need it. If they don’t allow for that, they’re going to lose the person and their investment in them.”


Opening Doors

But motherhood is not the only obstacle women experience in advancing. “The reasons women have not achieved parity at the highest levels are deep-rooted, complex, and nuanced,” Bartel says, pointing out that on a broader scale, the percentage of women in the top ranks of US corporations has barely moved in the last two decades.

For one thing, research by Professor David Ross found that general bias in the workplace hampers women. In a study of Danish companies, Ross found that if a male CEO has a daughter while in office, that company’s gender wage gap shrinks. Meanwhile, Professor Ernesto Reuben’s research has shown that women who perform as well or better than male colleagues are still less likely than men to be selected for leadership roles.

“This suggests that firms may not be allocating their human capital efficiently,” Bartel explains. “We need to help companies understand that diversity is good for business.” As one possible solution, some countries have instituted quotas for female representation on corporate boards. Norway, for instance, requires at least 40 percent of a corporate board’s members be women. Large quotas are unlikely to be supported in the United States, Bartel says, but Professor Bruce Kogut has modeled smaller quotas, finding that quotas as small as 10 to 20 percent could create long-lasting, significant changes to board representation.

However, many of the Columbia alumnae holding top positions in finance say they are not in favor of mandated quotas. Instead, some prefer that organizations make diversity a priority by building it into the workplace culture.

“If a business has a diverse customer base, your employees and leaders need to reflect that diversity,” says Maliz Beams ’85, CEO of ING US Retirement Solutions and a member of the Executive Board of the School’s Program for Financial Studies. “It’s important to keep a critical eye toward the diversity at senior management levels.” Simultaneously, Beams also says that considering diverse candidates for a position is crucial; “However, at the end of the day, you have to put the right person in the right job. Qualification must be the base-level consideration.”

In addition to flexible work arrangements, Nicole Pullen Ross believes organizations need to provide access to senior leaders and focus on mentorship and formal new employee sponsorship to level the playing field for all employees. “Firms have to create structures where interactions between women new to the field and senior leaders can happen, because women might not naturally be in the same professional finance circles as the men they’re competing with,” Pullen Ross says. “Sponsors have been critical in my career. A sponsor is someone who is going to be in that senior-level discussion speaking on your behalf or making sure you’re part of that conversation.”


Carving a Path

To help women MBA students launch their careers, Columbia Business School is offering more support than ever—from the School’s first ever Women’s Week held last November, to the student club Columbia Women in Business (CWIB), which organizes conferences, professional development, and mentorship opportunities for students.

“At Columbia, I felt like the world of finance was an extension of the campus,” Pullen Ross says. “Because of the faculty, frequency of guests, and different perspectives that were constantly available in the classroom, it helped me crystallize the career I wanted to pursue and build a strong network of not only colleagues, but friends.”

But while access may help open doors, it’s often up to women to keep them ajar. “The environment is important, but it’s up to you,” Chrin says. “You have to craft your own destiny. Don’t settle for mediocrity. Dig deep and do your own research. Be thoughtful in the relationships you build. The little details matter a lot.”

Indeed, Beams says that performance was critical but certainly not the only part of her success. “You have to do a superlative job 98 percent of the time,” Beams says. “But that’s only half—sometimes less than half—of the equation. The rest is career management and self-assessment—choosing the right jobs and the right challenges to build the right breadth of experience is quite important.”

Once women have the foundation and skills they need, Browning recommends a direct approach. “Ask for more responsibility. I wasn’t a vice president, and I wanted to be—so I asked my boss,” she says. “Believe that you can do this.”

Wang advises that women in business should accept credit when warranted. “Not only do women eschew credit, but they’re too modest about the overall importance of their work,” she says. “I know when I was running portfolios, I often used ’we’—I never used ’I.’ Like many women, I liked to share the credit. Don’t be afraid to point to the successes or achievements you’ve accomplished.”

But what ultimately propels Wang and other women in the C-suite—beyond ambition—is passion for their work.

“I just love investing. It’s intellectually the most challenging and creative job I can think of—you’re constantly looking at the world to figure out what’s working and translating that into investment ideas,” Wang says. “I’ve always said that even if I weren’t paid a cent, I’d still want to be in money management.”